Home to some of Minnesota’s biggest lakes, world-class golf courses and fun activities for the whole family, the Brainerd Lakes and Mille Lacs areas in central Minnesota make ideal summer getaways. There’s enough to see and do to fill a whole week; or set aside a couple weekends to explore each area on its own.
On the Water
More than 500 lakes make up the Brainerd Lakes area, including Gull Lake, the Whitefish chain of lakes and Lake Mille Lacs, the second-largest lake in the state. Boating, waterskiing, canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding are all popular activities, and public beaches for swimming and sunning can be found on North Long Lake, Pelican Lake and at Father Hennepin State Park on Lake Mille Lacs, to name a few.
Fishing is another big draw thanks to the wide variety of species that live in these waters, including bass, perch, northern pike, muskie, crappie and walleye. Visitors without their own boat can rent a pontoon, go out with an experienced guide or try launch fishing on Mille Lacs, one of the few Minnesota lakes large enough to accommodate these big group vessels.
New this summer, Destiny Cruises will offer brunch, lunch, dinner and moonlight cruises on Gull Lake; private charters for special occasions are also available.
Central Minnesota has become a hub for some of today’s hottest sports. The much lauded Cuyuna Mountain Bike Trail System, which opened in 2011 near Crosby, features 25 miles of trails with four levels of difficulty. For road bikers and in-line skaters, the 112-mile paved Paul Bunyan State Trail starts in Brainerd and runs all the way up to Bemidji.
ATV riders will find a wide variety of trails in the Mille Lacs area, from the easy-riding, 114-mile Soo Line South Trail to the more challenging Red Top Trail, which includes an adventure loop made up of rocky, steep and rugged terrain.
More than 20 golf courses, including the acclaimed courses at Madden’s, Cragun’s, Grand View, Breezy Point and Ruttger’s, make the Brainerd Lakes area a golf destination. The region is also home to 10 disc golf courses, which require no greens fees or reserved tee times. (Learn more about disc golf and other trending sports in this article.)
The Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post in Onamia tells the story of the area’s Ojibwe residents through interactive exhibits and life-size dioramas. Located on the reservation, the museum is closely tied to the people who live there today, and the adjacent trading post sells handmade crafts and other American Indian-made goods. Visit on Memorial Day for the annual powwow.
In Brainerd, a former sheriff’s quarters and county jail have been converted into the Crow Wing County Historical Society. Step inside the old jail cell, learn about the area’s railroad and logging history, and get a glimpse into everyday life in the 1800s.
At Crow Wing State Park, visitors can walk through the site of the Old Crow Wing Village and along part of the historic Woods Trail, which was used by ox carts carrying supplies between St. Paul and the Red River Valley.
The kids will be amazed when Paul Bunyan greets them by name at the entrance to Paul Bunyan Land, an amusement park just east of Brainerd. Admission includes unlimited rides on the merry-go-round, bumper cars and other carnival favorites; visits to the petting zoo; and access to the Pioneer Village, a collection of quirky, old-timey buildings like a train depot and feed store.
Hang out with exotic animals at the new Safari North Wildlife Park in Brainerd, where visitors can pet and feed the giraffe and ride the ponies and camels. The new park is scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend.
Other kid-friendly attractions include mini golf courses in Brainerd, Pequot Lakes and Crosslake, movie theaters in Pequot Lakes and Onamia, and the Brainerd International Raceway. Geocachers can uncover a mystery in Crow Wing State Park and search for hundreds of caches along the Paul Bunyan State Trail.